Apr 19, 2018

Axios Science

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Chicago readers: Mike Allen will be interviewing Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday about innovation and automation in the city. The event is free and open to the public —register here.

1 big thing: Next-gen fertility treatments

Illustration: Caresse Haaser/Axios

From genetic testing to attempts to grow viable eggs from stems cells, researchers are trying to improve the success rate of fertility treatments and cut their cost.

Why it matters: About 9% of men and 11% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. experience fertility problems, resulting in a multibillion dollar industry. The next-generation of fertility treatments has the potential to change who can have children and when but they are still in the early stages of development and have high hurdles to clear.

Some examples:

1. Genetic testing: People are looking to genetics for insights into how likely a fertility treatment is to succeed. Artificial intelligence has been lauded as a possible future tool to augment physicians' decision-making about courses of treatment for people who have repeatedly failed IVF cycles.

2. IVG: Scientists are attempting to take adult human cells and turn them into artificial eggs or sperm in a process called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG).

  • In 2016, Japanese scientists created artificial eggs from skin cells taken from a mouse's tail, fertilized and implanted them in mice, which then gave birth to pups. Now they're studying whether human gametes can be developed similarly. But there are major obstacles in developing a human system.

3. Instead of starting with stem cells, Evelyn Telfer from the University of Edinburgh recently reported isolating immature eggs from the primordial follicles in women's ovaries and activating them to grow into mature eggs in a dish. Theoretically, these would be ready to be fertilized.

  • Eventually these approaches may be merged to take a stem cell all the way through to a fully mature egg in a dish.
  • The bottom line: "There is a big gap between basic research and clinical applications. It will narrow as [we learn more] but basically we are in the dark," Telfer says.

Read the whole story here.

2. Yes, there really is a lot of space junk
Expand chart
Data: Space-Track; Note: Perigee is the point in an object's orbit where it's closest to Earth. Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

This visualization by Axios' Lazaro Gamio shows the 15,723 objects being tracked in low-Earth orbit (LEO) by the U.S. military's Joint Space Operations Center — including nearly 13,000 that are classified as space debris.

"From the astronauts in the International Space Station, to the high definition images of Earth you see on your smart phone, or even the satellites broadcasting your favorite movies into your living room, mitigating the propagation of debris in LEO is vital to the future of all nations' space based capabilities."
— Maj. Cody Chiles, spokesman, Joint Force Space Component Command

Why it matters: As space opens up to more nations, companies and possibly nonprofits, concerns are growing about how to track the growing amount of debris. This week, Vice President Mike Pence announced a "comprehensive space traffic management policy" to address the issue.

"The magnitude of the problem is unquantified. We can’t put a solid risk on it [for satellite operators]. But we all know it is only going to get worse."
Moriba Jah, University of Texas at Austin

"There's a lot of ambiguity about what is up there and where it will be an hour from now, tomorrow or next week," says Jah, who's building a database in hopes that it will lead to "[global] rules of the road for good behavior" in space.

Read the rest of the story here.

3. Axios stories
  • Robots: A team in Singapore got one to assemble an IKEA chair, reports Eileen Drage O'Reilly. Yes, but: The instructions were programmed into the robot. A key step for full automation would be for AI to allow machines to learn "what" to do when presented with a task, not just "how" to do it.
  • Climate: The start to this year might seem cold but so far 2018 is warm compared to historical averages, according to new federal data, writes Ben Geman.
  • Automation: Steve LeVine spoke with researcher Carl Frey about anxiety over robotization. His bottom line: "What form resistance will take, I have no idea," Frey said. "But if the record is any guidance, there will be resistance. The tendencies show there will be."
4. What we're reading elsewhere
5. Something wondrous

The diamond phase (blue), inclusions (yellow), and graphite region in the Almahata Sitta MS-170 meteorite. Colorized image: F. Nabiei et al/EPFL

There may have been dozens of planet-sized rocky bodies orbiting the Sun early in our solar system's existence, according to one hypothesis. Some of these proto-planets collided and merged, and eventually gave rise to the terrestrial planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth — we see in the inner solar system.

Now, Swiss scientists report pieces of an asteroid that fell onto Sudan's Nubian Desert in 2008 may be remnants of these "lost" planets.

  • In 2015, scientists reported the intense impact of asteroids colliding wasn't enough to produce the long (40-100 micron) diamonds found within what is now known as the Almahata Sitta ureilites — a strange carbon-rich subtype of meteorites of unknown origin. Instead, they suggested they formed under immense pressure like that found deep within a planet.
  • When Farhang Nabiei and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology analyzed the diamonds further, they found impurities of iron- and nickel-sulfides, chromite and phosphate that, they claimed this week, indicate they formed under pressures that could be created only within a "Mercury- to Mars-sized" body — "a large 'lost' planet before it was destroyed by collisions," they wrote.

The big picture: If the findings are confirmed by studying the chemical composition of more of these rare meteorites, researchers may learn what ingredients are needed to form a solar system with life-supporting planets like our own.